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Charting the Sikh connection to Australia’s First People

ASHA membres meet Bung Singh's family Source: Photo by Australian Sikh Heritage Association

It is an established fact that Indigenous and Muslim communities have traded, socialised and intermarried in Australia for three centuries. But the shared history between Aboriginal people, Sikh culture and religion is somewhat lesser known.

Recent research by the Australian Sikh Heritage Association (ASHA) confirms the existence of Sikh connections to Western Australia’s Indigenous community that can be traced back over 160 years.

Tarun Preet Singh of ASHA is actively engaged in finding the missing links between Sikh and Aboriginal history.

“We know through history that by the late 1850s ‘Afghan cameleers’ started pouring into Australia," he says. "They belonged to four main ethnic groups: Pashtun, Baluchi, Punjabi, and Sindhi.”

“The history teaches us that Islam was a strong bond between cameleers in Australia, despite their different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. A small number of cameleers were of the Sikh religion.”

“Our interest lies in the people of Sikh faith who called Australia their home in as early as 1850s.” 

ASHA Members at family meet
ASHA members Harbir Singh and Tarun Preet Singh with Bung Singh's family

The story of Bung Singh and his family

Tarun Preet Singh said the first link to the story is connected to Late Dr Amarjeet Singh – a founder member of ASHA who used to often mention about his chance of meeting with an indigenous elder around the year 1977 – 1978 in Fremantle, WA. He tells the story:

“Once he was standing in a queue and an indigenous gentleman in his 50’s walked behind him and said ‘Sat Sri Akal’.”

“Dr Singh turned around and was stunned and wished him back. Dr Singh curiously asked him - How did you learn this ‘Sat Sri Akal’? He said, I am Sikh, my grandfather was a Sikh.”

“This gentleman was the well-acclaimed playwright and poet, Jack Davis.”

"Later, we found more details about Mr Jack Davis from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. And this was the point where they started to know about Bung Singh and his family."

Mr Singh provided more details about Bung Singh's family:

"William Davis was the son of Bung Singh and was born in 1880. He married Alice McPhee and had eleven children. One of them was Jack Davis (born in 1917) who won international acclaim as an author, poet and a playwright. 

"William’s son Jack Davis was made a Member of the Order of British Empire (MBE) in 1976 and a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1985.

Mr Singh said that he was also an indigenous rights campaigner and he also received honorary doctorates from Murdoch University and the University of Western Australia.

"At 14, outraged and indignant at the treatment of Aboriginal people, Jack began poetry as a means of expression. The policy at that time was that Aboriginal people were not allowed in the towns after 6pm. But the brave Jack Davis refused to leave and was imprisoned for 4 days," he said.

“I have no doubt in stating that as a humanitarian he made an enormous contribution to bridge the gap between cultures and communities." 

Bung Singh's Family
Membres of Bung Singh's family

In Jan 2016, during one of their country visits to Quairading town in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia Mr Singh and other volunteers met Garry Taylor who brought them in touch with  Jodi Davis from the Davis family.

“If you talk about the family tree, Jodi Davis is the daughter of late Mr Kevan Davis and Rose Davis,” said Mr Singh.

Mr Singh told SBS Punjabi about the day when they made the first contact with the Davis family.

“I talked to Jodi who then discussed with her father Kevan. After a couple of calls, Kevan agreed to meet me and share his family history with me,” he said. 

“But before I could finalise a date and venue to meet him, Kevan sadly passed away in a car accident.”

“The shock was difficult to bear but still within a few weeks, the family still agreed to meet us and talk about Kevan who was one of the grandsons of late Bung Singh.

“The timing of the meeting within a short period of the tragic incident shows the open-heartedness and the cultural richness of the Davis family.”

ASHA volunteers Harbir Singh and Tarun Preet Singh met the Davis family on Sunday the 4th of Dec 2016 at Wyalkatchem, which is located 192 kilometres east-north-east of Perth.

ASHA members at the family meet

The family members came from far off places like Mandurah – Kondoola – Northam and had hired the community hall and arranged a lunch for ASHA volunteers.

“The family is proud of their Sikh ancestry and shared their rich history depicting photos, family tree and oral history.”

This family link can also be confirmed by Nyungar Tradition book written by Lois Tilbrok.

Jack Davis - poet and playwright. The sub-heading ‘relationship with parents’ also mentions Bung Singh as a grandparent - Biography - Jack Davis - Indigenous Australia

Mr Singh said they're overwhelmed with a typical 'Punjabi style' warm welcome from the family.

"This is a big Nyungar family with more than 100-150 members," he said. 

“Rose Davis the eldest member of the family introduced each member of the Davis family with us.”

“As we casually shook hands while greeting and welcoming she interrupted and emphasized to give a proper hug saying in elderly authoritative tone saying ‘meet properly – they are family’. All of us could feel the emotions and within a few minutes we all felt at home.”

“A senior family member Kathleen Davis – described their upbringing and mentioned that other members of the community used to tell her to go to 'your country' – meaning India.”

“She expressed her lifelong wish to visit India once to see and experience the land and culture of her ancestors.”

“So this is the story of Bung Singh and his family. Our next focus is to try to find out more about Bung Singh.”

ASHA team from left to right: Amarjit Singh Pabla, Harjit Singh, Kuljit Kaur Jassal, Kuldeep Singh and Tarunpreet Singh (Photo credit: Husveena Singh Photography)
Photo credit Husveena Singh Photography

Mr Singh Singh told SBS Punjabi that ASHA is interested in doing more research in the indigenous history and its Sikh connections.

“We are aware that there are more connections with the surname ‘Singh’ in Darwin. But at this stage, we are not sure if their ancestors have any Sikh connections," he said. 

“In the last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull handed over the land to the traditional owners, a Kenbii claim that took over 37 years to see resolved. Zoe Singh, Raylene Singh and Jason Singh were one of the nominated traditional owners.”

“There could be Fiji-Indian connections. But we are not sure. We need to do more research to find the missing links between Sikh and Indigenous ancestry.”

SBS has contacted the Australian Bureau of Statistics to find out the 2011 Census data for Indigenous Australians who nominated Sikhism as their religion (table below).

ABS Data
2011 Census data for Indigenous people who nominated Sikhism as their religion

*The ‘INFO’ disclaimer at the bottom indicates, when a search query of Census data returns a result that is a very small number, the number gets randomly adjusted to preserve the privacy/anonymity of people. So while the number might not actually be three in this instance, you can assume that it's more than zero, but less than ten.